Neuromarketing: Tapping into Consumer Psychology Increases Conversions

By Shani Flynn | 27 Mar 2013

The best marketers can read consumer psychology intimately, including the specific functions of various facets of the human brain. This school of thought has led to the practice known as neuromarketing.

When embarking on the creation of any marketing campaign, it is advantageous to come to grips with the specific parts of the brain that can be stimulated and the potential resultant behaviours of a consumer.

Enter neuromarketing: the science of locating consumers’ ‘buy buttons’. The International Journal of Psychophysiology defines the concept as “the application of neuroscientific methods to analyse and understand human behavior in relation to markets and marketing exchanges“.

To appreciate how neuromarketing works, we must first understand certain areas of the brain, our reactions when they are triggered and how that, in turn, affects our decision making ability.

The rational vs. the emotional

Dr Piers Steel, Author and world-leading authority on the science of motivation, describes the process of decision making as the “interplay between [the] Limbic system and prefrontal cortex”, the former responsible for emotion and the latter for rationality.

Diagram of the Limbic system

The Limbic system is the seat of instinctive, reactionary behaviours.

If you’ve ever grabbed that delicious salty snack in favor of a more nutritious option, or procrastinated in completing an important project because you felt like going for a drink with friends instead, then you should blame your Limbic system for this behaviour. The Limbic system is concerned only with the ‘now’, making instinctual, immediate decisions that allow us to achieve short-term goals, such as the feeling of pleasure or the avoidance of pain. It operates incredibly quickly – sometimes at an unconscious level – and it is able to easily override our prefrontal cortex, making us extremely susceptible to temptation.

The more recently evolved prefrontal cortex is responsible for our executive function, complex cognitive behavior and is also concerned with achieving long-term goals. Both of these parts of the brain work simultaneously as we attempt to form decisions, creating a constant tension between the two until the anterior cingulate ‘picks’ which one to follow.

Because the prefrontal cortex is slower and requires more effort than the impulsive Limbic system, we often make the less rational decision in favour of a dopamine-induced high.

Deluding Ourselves: Believing the Illusion of Rational Decision Making

According to Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational”, whilst we often behave irrationally, our desire is to believe we make rational decisions. We find it very difficult to accept the truth that often we merely have the illusion of having made a decision, rather than actually having made one. Steel contends that much of the time people display little insight into their own decisions and marketers are using this to their advantage.

Using Neuromarketing

Since the recent advent of neurobiology in marketing, we have only just (in the last few decades) discovered that the best way to reach the consumer is to engage both the rational and emotional parts of the brain, rather than assuming consumer adherence to rational self interest. Previously, marketers concerned themselves only with value creation and product satisfaction.

The following represent a few important techniques of successful neuromarketing:

  1. Utilise the ‘Barroom Defence’: appeal to the consumer’s Limbic system while allowing them to maintain a sense of rationality behind the decision to purchase.
  2. Marketing stimuli should focus on the visual, rather than the verbal.
  3. The brain is geared towards adapting to new stimuli and therefore reacts better to the unexpected. Focus on new ways to motivate, delight and excite your customers.
  4. Human emotional state plays an often underestimated role in how we process factual information (e.g. a product’s benefits), so the timing of a message is crucial. Use a device to trigger arousal of the Limbic system via dopamine realise (e.g. an image of people socialising while wearing/eating/drinking/using your product) and only attempt to deliver the brand’s message following that image.
  5. Use ‘ease’ to influence behavior: impulse purchasing overrides comparison shopping and according to Steel “temptation is maximized if products are easily accessible.”

Web-specific neuromarketing

Retail example of the primacy effect

Put your best foot forward when employing the primacy effect.

Due to the exponential rise in online shopping, most products are accessible from our homes and so, can now be purchased with increased impulsivity. This universal proximity provides retailers with more opportunities to appeal to the Limbic system. It is important for retailers to be present in as many digital realms as possible, as smartphones, social and digital media all provide ‘ease’ for the consumer.

Roger Dooley, author of “Neuromarketing”, suggest marketing techniques specific to web design:

  • Utilise ‘Gamification’: The sense of achievement users feel will trigger dopamine release (the neurotransmitter that stimulates the Limbic system) and create positive associations to the product.
  • Personalise your website to make use of ‘The Doppelganger Effect’, thereby creating active advertising by allowing the user to engage with the product.
  • Try ordering your product placement based on the principle of primacy effect.

The dilemma

Neuromarketing is still in its infancy; it is neither conclusive nor has it lead to the forming of a heuristic, but the potential for businesses to employ learnings based on the study is very high. However, it is also important for retailers to consider the ethical quandary it poses in areas of awareness, consent and understanding on the part of the consumer.


3 thoughts on “Neuromarketing: Tapping into Consumer Psychology Increases Conversions”

  1. Michael S says:

    check out the book called Buyology. A few years old now but explains this all in detail. Very interesting.

  2. Kevin Dam says:

    Also gave a read of “the buying brain: the secrets of selling to the subconscious mind”, “brand sense”, and “brandscape”

  3. Kevin Dam says:

    Oh also if you are designing for Web then look for the book “neuro Web design” – it sums things up very well

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